Thinkin' About Tomorrow

It ended much as it began, in a last-minute frenzy to get things done. Eight years ago, President-elect Bill Clinton, worried his Inaugural Address wasn't ready for prime time, stayed up most of the night rehearsing and revising. Red-eyed and puffy-faced, he was late getting to the White House for an Inaugural-morning coffee with outgoing President George Bush. Clinton spent his last days in office the same way, huddled with aides late into the night, working on little sleep, trying to finish the job before the next President Bush came for the keys on Saturday morning. In those final hours, he managed to cut a legal deal that spared him both indictment by Independent Counsel Robert Ray and disbarment in Arkansas. Then, having helped himself out of a lifetime of lawsuits, he used his waning power to bail out his friends--and infuriate his enemies--issuing 140 pardons and 36 commutations less than an hour before work crews arrived to rip up the Oval Office carpet.

Once again, it looked like Bill Clinton had beaten the odds and won a narrow, if bittersweet, victory. Historians--and plenty of Americans--will judge him harshly as an impeached president who barely staved off banishment from the legal profession for lying under oath. And Clinton couldn't have been pleased that Ray's timing cast a shadow over his final few hours in office. The independent counsel agreed to drop the case against Clinton in exchange for the president's admission that he gave false testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton also accepted a five-year suspension of his Arkansas legal license and a $25,000 fine. The terms were hardly flattering. Yet last week he didn't seem particularly bothered. Escorting George W. Bush through the grand foyer of the White House on Saturday, the soon-to-be ex-president was relaxed and good-humored--flush from his last-ditch attempt to settle old scores.

The deal was classic Clinton, a fitting finale to a presidency defined by an endless cycle of career-threatening scandal and death-defying recovery. Clinton's political enemies saw the deal as proof that the long years of investigation were justified. Clinton tried to spin the agreement as no big deal. And the public seems to agree. The new NEWSWEEK Poll shows 44 percent of Americans say Clinton's punishment was "about right;" 33 percent thought it was not tough enough.

As he had so many times before, Clinton depended on the kindness of lawyers. His counsel, David Kendall, and Ray had been meeting quietly for months, searching for a middle ground. Ray kept the pressure on the president, seating a new grand jury to show the White House he was serious about prosecuting if Clinton wouldn't play. Those close to Clinton say he never believed Ray had much of a case--but neither the president nor his lawyers thought it was worth the prolonged agony of finding out. The agreement started coming together early last month; Clinton agreed in principle to admitting he'd been less than truthful in his sworn testimony. But before Ray would agree to anything final, he insisted Kendall settle the separate question of Clinton's possible disbarment in Arkansas. Early in January, NEWSWEEK has learned, Kendall secretly flew to Little Rock to meet with lawyers from the Arkansas bar. Clinton had been furious last year when the state legal establishment recommended that his legal license be permanently revoked. Kendall hoped to come away with a two-year suspension. In the end, he had to settle for five years.

Back in Washington, Kendall and Ray began wrangling about the timing of the deal. Clinton suggested an announcement on the Monday after he left office. He didn't want the news to detract from his final days on the job. But Ray balked. According to sources close to Clinton, the independent counsel insisted that any deal be wrapped up before the new president took office. The first weeks of Gerald Ford's presidency had been consumed with questions about his pardon of Nixon; Ray wanted Clinton's successor to be free of Clinton's shadow. Eventually, they agreed to announce the deal on Friday, and the lawyers worked frantically to finish the paperwork on time. It helped that Kendall seemed to get on better with Ray than he had with his predecessor, Ken Starr. Kendall couldn't resist taking a dig at Starr on Friday, praising Ray as a "real prosecutor."

Clinton didn't take long to put the matter behind him. With less than 24 hours left in his presidency, he still had to wrap up a major piece of business: presidential pardons and commutations. Clinton had planned to issue pardons early on Friday, but was still working on them by midafternoon. He spent the rest of the day and most of the night in the Oval Office, haggling over names with top aides. The list wasn't complete until around 10 a.m. on Saturday--30 minutes before Bush was scheduled to arrive for coffee.

It reads like a nostalgia tour of the Clinton years. There are the scandal figures: Susan McDougal, the Clintons' long-suffering Whitewater partner who served 18 months in jail for refusing to testify against Clinton. Former Housing secretary Henry Cisneros, who'd run afoul of the law with secret payments to a former mistress. Six lobbyists and political aides convicted by Donald Smaltz, the independent counsel appointed to investigate former Agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who was acquitted. Former CIA director John Deutch, who was accused of mishandling classified information. He also gave an official reprieve to his brother, Roger Clinton, who served time in prison on a cocaine charge. He pardoned reformed radical Patty Hearst, and gave a commutation to jailed former Navajo Nation leader Peter MacDonald. Perhaps the oddest entry on the list: Marc Rich, an accused tax evader living as a fugitive in Switzerland. Rich lobbied hard for a pardon, hiring former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn to plead his case with the president. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also intervened on behalf of Rich--a large benefactor of Israeli museums.

Early Saturday morning the plea deal and pardons behind him, Clinton stepped into the Oval Office for a last look around. He made phone calls to friends, then sat down to write a letter to George W. Bush. He left it on the desk, along with a copy of the letter Bush's father had left for him eight years ago. In a final send-off at Andrews Air Force Base, Clinton told the crowd, "I left the White House, but I'm still here." The line won warm applause from his supporters--but to his enemies, it must have sounded more like a warning.